Column: How Egypt’s generals used street protests to stage a coup

By Neil Ketchley*

Four years ago, Gen. (now President) Abdel Fatah al-Sisi appeared on Egyptian television to announce the suspension of the recently passed Constitution and the removal of the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, from office. Days earlier, on June 30, 2013, massive street protests called for new presidential elections. The decision to intervene, Sissi assured his audience, followed months of failed attempts to bring about national reconciliation and stabilize the country. Egypt’s military, he promised, would stay out of post-Morsi politics.

In a new book on the January Revolution of 2011 and its aftermath, I detail how Egypt’s generals and security apparatus instigated the June 30 protests in a bid to roll back new forms of civilian authority and legitimate a military takeover. This might seem counterintuitive at first. We often think of street-level mobilization as the domain of progressives and revolutionaries. However, as a growing body of empirical research suggests, powerful state actors can also facilitate and orchestrate collective protest for their own ends.

Manufacturing a rebellion

Initially portrayed as a grass-roots movement, the Tamarod, or “rebellion,” petition campaign led the calls to oust Morsi on June 30. Only later would the role of Egypt’s military and Interior Ministry stimulating the movement become apparent. Leaked audio recordings reveal that Tamarod’s leadership was drawing on a bank account administered by Egypt’s generals and replenished by the United Arab Emirates. Interviews with Interior Ministry officials and former Tamarod members highlight how the security apparatus fomented street protests against the Morsi government. These revelations quickly discredited Tamarod after the coup. In October 2013, secular activists and revolutionaries attacked one of the movement’s founders, who they denounced as a “pimp of the intelligence services.”

Less well-documented is the wave of anti-Muslim Brotherhood violence that destabilized Morsi’s presidency in the period leading up to the military takeover. Figure 1 shows a heat map of attacks on Muslim Brotherhood offices and party headquarters between June 18 and July 3, 2013. Attacks were particularly concentrated in the Nile Delta governorates — areas where Morsi-appointed governors had struggled to assert political authority following his June 2012 election. These public episodes of violence — more than 40 in total — sharply escalated in the week before the June 30 protests, coinciding with public declarations by police officers and Interior Ministry officials that the country’s security forces would not intervene and protect the buildings.

Such concerted and deliberate inaction by security forces is an increasingly common feature of destabilization campaigns aimed at undermining democratic rule. In 2008, the police and army in Thailand stood by as pro-military “yellow shirts” occupied Bangkok’s two commercial airports for over two weeks in a bid to bring down the government of Somchai Wongsawat. In 2014, Pakistani soldiers looked on as a protest movement with close ties to the country’s security apparatus occupied the parliament and the state broadcaster in opposition to newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

In Egypt, anti-Morsi protesters were allowed to occupy the Culture Ministry for nearly a month after they objected to his pick for culture minister. The police’s failure to intervene was not lost on the occupiers, who later said, “The state was in favor of the sit-in because they wanted to remove the Brotherhood.”

How many actually protested?

When large crowds took to the streets June 30 calling for Morsi to leave office, figures associated with the military and Interior Ministry were quick to proclaim that between 14 and 30 million Egyptians had mobilized against the country’s divisive president. In one memorable example, former army general Sameh Seif el-Yazal appeared on CNN the evening of the coup, insisting that 33 million protesters had taken to the streets. El-Yazal would later go on to head a pro-Sisi electoral list that included leaders of the Tamarod movement, reportedly organized by Egypt’s intelligence services.

These numbers, which represent between 25 and 50 percent of Egypt’s entire adult population, are simply implausible. For comparison, crowdsourced event data suggests that the recent women’s day marches in the United States, likely the largest single day of mass protest in the country’s history, attracted around 4 million participants countrywide. The population of the United States is nearly four times that of Egypt.

Clark McPhail, a leading scholar of crowd dynamics, estimates that about 200,000 protesters joined the largest protest held in and around Tahrir Square on June 30. Similar numbers took to the streets outside of the presidential palace. In my own research, I counted more than 140 anti-Morsi protests on June 30, as reported in Egyptian news media. Adding reported crowd sizes suggests that total participation on June 30 was likely a little over 1 million protesters nationwide. This represents massive protest — but it is still only a fraction of the total number of votes cast for Morsi.

How the anti-Morsi mobilization varied by political context

Event data also allows us to study areas that witnessed greater mobilization, by looking at protest participation as a percentage of the population in different governorates between June 30 and July 3, 2013. Cairo, which saw the largest protests, is a clear outlier. Interestingly, mobilization appears to have been considerably larger in governorates that voted in greater numbers for Morsi’s opponents in the first round of the 2012 elections, and this is statistically significant. There was less protest in areas that initially voted for Morsi, providing some modest evidence against the claim that the Brotherhood’s electoral base later turned against him.

Of course, the military’s instrumentalization of large crowds June 30 does not detract from the significant popular opposition to Morsi’s divisive and frequently incompetent presidency. But as I have argued elsewhere, appreciating the role of Egypt’s generals and security services in creating the conditions for Morsi’s removal does call into question a pervasive and politically expedient portrayal of the events of June-July 2013: that a majority of Egyptians spontaneously rose up, unaided, to embrace a full-blown return to military rule.


*Neil Ketchley is a lecturer in Middle East Politics at King’s College London. His new book, “Egypt in a Time of Revolution,” was supported by a TRE Grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science. This article was published in the Washington Post on July 3, 2017.